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Michael Flannery: “Figures don’t lie but liars figure.”

Science historian Michael Flannery observes, regarding cliometrics (an attempt to scientize the study of history): It’s not a new idea.

I well remember all the hype in the 1970s over “cliometrics.” It produced some passably interesting pieces of historical scholarship, but in the end showed itself to be rather limited.

The problem was everyone soon found out what we sort of intuitively knew already, namely, “that figures don’t lie but liars figure.” That’s a bit harsh, but actually the point is that the data generated is never any better than the premises that lie behind the gathering of that data. What you’ve described here is not so much new as it merely takes the cliometric model to new depths. It’s advocates claim the “scale” is new, but to me this just says their extrapolations will be larger and their claims more broadly spurious.

I suppose if I were a hypnotized Darwinist who believes people really are without free will and function according to some form of genomic determinism I’d be pretty excited about this. As it is it conjures up only a smile and a plaintive, “will they never learn” in me.

Of course for the scientistic zombies in our midst this is merely applying Auguste Comte’s ultimate goal of the positivistic ideal. There’s so much important work that needs to be done in history, I hope too much time and resources are not wasted on it. What this story suggests isn’t that history is just”one damned thing after another” but that often “it’s the same damned thing simply repackaged with new hype.”

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One Response to Michael Flannery: “Figures don’t lie but liars figure.”

  1. Might want to tread carefully here, Denyse. The person who (is said to have) coined the term ‘cliometrics’ is also a (non-ID) ‘design theorist.’ Follow the white rabbit.

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